Professor discusses American Indian philosophy

Bryan Wroten

Thomas M. Norton-Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Kent State Stark campus, lectures on Native American philosophy at the East Liverpool campus Friday. He discussed beliefs and traditions practiced by tribes across America. SEAN DAUGHERTY | DAIL

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Rocks are people too.

In fact, most everything is a person as long as it has capacity to change, Thomas Norton-Smith said.

At the East Liverpool campus on Friday, Norton-Smith, professor of philosophy at the Stark campus and member of the Piqua sept of the Shawnee, gave a lecture on common themes in American Indian world views. He said because there are so many nations and tribes, there isn’t a central native religion. Instead, he said there are themes that connect them all.

His lecture, “Reflections of American Indian Philosophy,” began with an explanation of the differences between Western and American Indian philosophies. He said it’s not clear what American Indian thought is considered a philosophy. From a Western point of view, he said one could differentiate among religion, philosophy, art and so on.

“There are no easy distinctions,” he said of American Indian philosophy. “All the boundaries are fuzzy.”

To help explain the concept that one doesn’t need to be human to be a person according to American Indian beliefs, Norton-Smith had the audience list all the types of animals they could on a sheet of paper in 20 seconds. He had them do it a second time, but listing types of people.

The next three themes follow suit after the first because they deal with respect, morality and gifting, he said. He compared American Indians traditions to Christianity in that one must love another, even if someone is an enemy. Because things other than humans are considered persons, he said American Indians had great respect for animals and places.

He told the story of Coyote, Iktomi, the spider-trickster spirit, and Iya, the rock. Coyote gave Iya a blanket but decides to take it back after it starts to rain. Iktomi warns him about Iya’s power, but Coyote takes his blanket back anyway. Iya chases him and squashes Coyote.

The point of the story, Norton-Smith said, is “be generous to heart. If you give something, give it forever.”

The last four themes dealt with the importance of actions as the vehicle of meaning. He said the concept of knowledge in Western thought is presented through sentences and statements. Native traditions used storytelling instead of writing, he said.

Truth, he said, is not attached to fact, as it is in Western cultures. It is a property of action, he said.

“Based on experiences, the story can be different because experiences are different,” he said.

Stories adapt to situations, he said, such as white settlers coming to America. He said Shawnee origin stories changed to include the Great White Spirit foretelling their arrival.

“The function of the story is not to get the facts,” he said. “It is to reflect the experiences.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Bryan Wroten at [email protected].